“The Last Dance” is a better exploration of corners of the human condition than a sports documentary, and it is better for it
“The Last Dance”, while billed as a sports documentary, and certainly being one, is something rather more fascinating as it is growing over its ten episodes.
See, it could have played it safe, and registered as as something akin to an ode or love letter to a brilliant, transcendent athlete, and a dynastic franchise, and a referendum on how the game and sports were never the same, and with six episodes remaining, it still has plenty of time to retreat to those sports documentary tropes. I don’t think it will though. Not at all.
What has been most fascinating in watching these first four episodes has been the moments when the various members of this 90s Bulls family are shone spending a few moments being emotionally naked, and their sense of place and purpose, and how they were impacted, made vulnerable.
Early, we are allowed to experience Bulls management (Jerry Krause) as mercenary for even considering disassembling and rebuilding the franchise which included the greatest player ever, arguably the greatest coach ever, and which had won five titles. We are allowed to revisit the clear absurdity of it all. But, interestingly, we are welcome, just after, to perspective take.
Hearing the various points of view, including that of the team owner, allows us to struggle with the reality of that franchise, and its many moving parts. We are made to face the person Jerry Krause was, and the wounds visited on his person, and how we struggled with those. We are allowed to carefully work through some emotional and practical specifics. Krause didn’t simply want to blow the Bulls up. He maintained a point of view, as a front office executive, that no one player was bigger than the team or the franchise, not even the greatest player of all time. That approach, and set of beliefs, was his greatest public sin. For those far removed, he was delusional, and absurdly so.
As we are moved by the documentary further in, we see the insecurity that drove this belief in Krause. We are allowed to see a tireless worker, who considered himself the architect of that franchise. He had drafted the players, and organized the trades, and found the coach. When he looked up and around at all of the praise being offered the players and coach, and all of the monuments being built to their greatness, he began to wonder aloud at why he wasn’t being included. If we are to be fair, there were moments where Jordan and Pippen targeted him, bullied him, ostracized him. This fractured family had built certain tethers fashioned of disdain, and resentment. Situations which required perspective taking, such as Phil and Pippen’s contract negotiations, were often overshadowed by beasts and shields made of hubris.
Through the first four episodes, we are given a foundation in the psychology’s and lives of Jordan, Pippen, Jackson and Rodman. Four very different beings, and all four carrying very different burdens toward their superordinate goal. Ultimately, there are reflective moments where each explores how the self lived within the space of destiny and expectation. Each references instances of connection with the other, and each spends moments with very real and human doubt.
Basketball, the games, wins and losses are discussed as well, but they are secondary in parts. Rightly so.
Michael Jordan has long been known to be competitive and proud. He has worn his emotions quite clearly on a broad surface, and has sometimes had conversations about others clumsily. Perhaps he has lived on a pedestal so long that he has been made callous in certain matters. Perhaps it is hubris. Either way, some of that approach emerged here in his discussion about that final season together, and the controversy around Scottie Pippen’s contract.
Michael worked up to referencing Scottie’s selfishness in seeking a new deal and refusing to play without one. For a player who was the face of the franchise, the wealthiest athlete on Earth at that time, and one who had just earned 35 million dollars in a single season, this seemed particularly tone deaf. In several instances, Jordan appears to struggle with others not haring his singular pursuit of winning. He appears to struggle with putting anything before ultimate victory. He doesn’t appear to be speaking of a friend who is being treated unfairly, in that instant. His conversation there seemed to center around a co-worker who was keeping him from drawing highest marks on a team project. I can’t imagine that Pippen didn’t feel betrayed that his teammate wouldn’t advocate for him. Or perhaps, he understood Jordan fundamentally, and had made peace with the fact that he never would.
Dennis Rodman, is perhaps the most interesting study of the whole family unit. He has a clear history of personal trauma, and appears to have used his adult life and career to live out loud, sail away from it, sedate himself, and most importantly, to be seen. While great in Detroit, he wasn’t as visible as Thomas, Laimbeer, Dumars or even Daly. He filled a niche, brilliantly, but not one that drew him attention, and widespread affirmation. In observing him over the course of his career, it is clear that Rodman wants notice, and for there to be a conversation around his existence. Some part of his wants to be the golden child in the room, and h found a way to draw that conversation around him, and his obvious pain. Life, appeared to be a cycle of punishment and reprimand for him, and I don’t know if being on a ballclub with Jordan and Pippen did very much for his sense of self, not with two players who remained so self-focused.
We have six more episodes, and I am looking forward to all of them. I am fascinated by how often these many family members wonder how their time together impacted the self, and how those far removed from that home processed them. I’m glad that the series makers have taken this approach. I already knew the scores and the stats. This approach is giving me, all of us, the psychological autopsy that we didn’t know we wanted around this fluid family unit.
We get to explore how we processed emotionally at that time. It is all coming back, and we get to reframe it. Personally, I get to again blame Jordan for my Knicks and Ewing never winning a title. I get to call all of my friends who were “diehard Bulls fans”, filthy liars all over again. I get to think of the days of the last great NBA Dynasty, and I get to see that Isaiah Thomas is still out here lying. It’s good stuff.